Austin Bay

In late May, Poland decided concrete bunkers, barbed wire and other fixed defenses are a sane and savvy 21st-century defense necessity. According to senior Polish officials, Poland’s Eastern Shield defensive line will be capable of thwarting “all forms of aggression.”

Poland, next door to Ukraine, wants to deter a Russian air and ground invasion. The Eastern Shield will cover Poland’s border with Belarus and its border with Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast (on the Baltic Sea). The Polish general staff, however, argues the 700-kilometer-long defensive system will also frustrate Russian hybrid warfare efforts. More on that in a moment.

“Fixed defenses” is a classic military term for fortifications and obstacles that stop or hinder the movement of enemy military forces.

Last week’s column surveyed historical examples — including medieval castles and sharp wooden stakes to protect Welsh archers, World War I concrete bunkers and trench systems with minefields and barbed wire. (Note: Contemporary razor wire is barbed wire’s offspring.)

Fixed means the defensive positions and obstacles don’t move. In 1940, German forces went around France’s Maginot Line. Fixed defense systems got a bad name (see last week’s column).

However, the Nazis never directly challenged the Maginot Line’s defenses and minefields — and its firepower.

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Firepower is a form of mobility. Artillerymen use the term “maneuvering fires” over the battle space. A defensive position may be fixed, but its “fire” weapons can engage targets within range.

Ukraine’s war to defeat Russian invaders has demonstrated 21st-century technology gives fixed but well-protected defenses a very long-range strike capability. Ukraine has become a war of aerial robots — in the form of cheap flying drone platforms that limit maneuvers by vehicles and personnel.

The war has also demonstrated cheap drones and artillery can disable and often destroy expensive armored vehicles at long range. Land mines have always hindered battlefield movement. It takes combat engineers a lot of time to clear mines.

Land mines, precision long-range fire and lack of traditional close air support. The Russian Air Force can’t handle Ukrainian air defenses, so Russia fires long-range missiles. Ukraine’s F-16s have yet to arrive. Both sides entrench and eastern Ukraine is a WWI-like hellscape.

The Maginot Line became a cliche for spending billions to create a false sense of security. Poland thinks the cliche is out of date. So do Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

NATO’s eastern flank nations are betting well-constructed and positioned fixed defenses can deter a Russian quick strike attack like the one Moscow attempted in February 2022.

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Defenders always attempt to drive enemy attackers into kill zones where massed defensive fires can annihilate them. Poland’s 21st-century fortifications are designed to do that. But the Eastern Shield will be a very “active fixed defense.” The fixed defenses will protect anti-air and anti-space weapons (missile defenses) as well as provide targeting data for NATO air support. Buried concrete bunkers can house generators to power massive anti-drone microwave weapons. That’s not fantasy. It’s part of the plan.

Infantry preservation has mattered for at least 10,000 years. Defensive positions preserve the lives of infantrymen. Protected positions can launch and control aerial drone swarms to engage enemy soldiers and vehicles. They can also release unmanned ground vehicles — robots with anti-tank and anti-personnel weapons.

Poland has published sketches of Eastern Shield defenses. At the border, an invader will confront steel barrier fencing backed by razor wire. Next: an anti-tank ditch backed by a long berm. Next: 100 to 200 meters of metal and concrete anti-tank hedgehogs. The sketches show “planned” minefields. Roads have prepared holes for bollards and — I assume –— land mines and cratering charges. Next: machine gun nests, bunkers, pillboxes and zigzagging trenches. Behind the fortifications are “protected hiding places for civilians.”

One sketch says swamps and “deepened ditches” will be used when available.

Note the steel barrier fencing and razor wire right at the border. In November 2021, Poland claimed it faced a hybrid war invasion. Belarus and Russia were sending thousands of illegal migrants into Poland, with the goal of sapping Poland’s economy and sowing social chaos.

Eastern Shield is a border wall.

Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and author.


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